When to Start Common App Essay & Other College Admissions Essays?

Time Moves Slowly When You're Waiting

Don’t worry: NOT YET!

“When to start?” is a question I’m asked frequently.

Parents occasionally call me when their kids are in tenth grade or just starting eleventh grade, and they’re eager to know the ideal time to start writing college application essays. Parents – and sometimes students – also call me days before major due dates, in a panic. Is there still time to write and/or review an essay – or five of them? Eleventh grade is too soon to start – and the night before is, well, too late, at least in an ideal world.

One family wanted their daughter to start writing her Common App essay a year before it was due, and I had to explain a few things – considerations that apply to everyone and that influence when you can and should start the process:

  • The Common App essay prompts, which some 700 colleges and universities use, can change every year, and we don’t know until early in the year what the prompts/questions will be. For those applying this coming year – 2018-19, for the class of 2023 – the Common App prompts are the same prompts that were used last year, and you can see them here As always, students have to write ONE essay of 650 words, choosing a topic from the 7 prompts.
  • It’s great that we know what the Common App prompts for this year, but I don’t advise beginning to write until late spring or early summer, and it’s fine to write in late summer or fall. The problem with writing too soon is that by the time you send in your application – which could be six months later – there’s a good chance you’ll look at your essay and have another idea for a subject. Your essay might be terrific, but in those six months, you’ve had experiences and insights that have overtaken the essay you wrote months before.
  • The Common Application essay is likely to be only one of several – or many – essays you will have to write. Some colleges and universities have a raft of other writing that’s required, whether it’s Tufts’ question: “What makes you happy?” or Stanford’s “Write a letter to your future roommate” or Barnard’s “Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about?”
  • The prompts mentioned above are those from this past year (and have been used for several years), but the prompts can change from year to year, and we don’t know until spring or sometimes summer what the prompts for the upcoming year will be. You can’t start writing if you don’t know the prompts, though there are common themes.
  • Colleges and universities post their prompts at different times throughout the spring and summer. It’s never possible to know exactly when we’ll know the prompts for the coming year. Many aren’t known until the Common Application itself goes live on August 1. You CAN sign up for the Common App before August 1, but the latest information may not be on it until then.
  • Still, it’s useful to see what prompts for the colleges you’re interested in have been in previous years. In most cases, the questions don’t change too much – unless they do.
  • While many universities are tied to the Common Application, many universities including the University of California system (with nine campuses, including UCLA and Berkeley) have their own questions. For the last two years, this is what they’ve been at the UC universities.

I have a list of the prompts for 15 colleges and universities from last year. If you send me an email, I will send it to you. Or if you want to talk about yourself or your high school student’s college applications, please write to me: Liz@DontSweatTheEssay.com   Thanks!